Ordeal by Fire: Canada, 1910-1945

By Ralph Allen | Go to book overview

III
The strange, voluptuous fascination of the tariff--The Conservatives take over with help from abroad

OTHER clouds were gathering above the scene of federal politics. They were older than those above the still non-existent navy. The name for them was "the tariff."

Put by itself, "tariff" may well be one of the most opaque and lifeless words in the English language. But in its peculiar Canadian context it soars and breathes with a sensuousness worthy of Hindu poets. Sometimes it crashes forth like the curse of Baal.

Sir John A. Macdonald girded himself with the tariff like a warrior girding against lions. For him and the country he helped to create, the flaccid, bookkeeper's word dripped with emotion and cried out loud with mighty promises and desperate warnings. It had its own associations, quite as vivid as "woman" and "man," "salvation" and "doom," "victory" and "defeat," "love" and "hate."

Considering the rages and paeans it had inspired throughout the country's lifetime, the principle of the tariff was simple. Canada was a big and easy market for manufacturers from abroad, particularly from the United States. Canada was a big and easy source of raw materials. The essential and eternal Canadian dilemma was this:

Low tariff or no tariff: Canadian wheat, pulp, timber, and other natural products would pour across the border to the States. American cars, clothes, and canned food would pour back, because they could be made more cheaply in the United States than at home.

High tariff: Raw products would be harder to sell abroad. Manufactured products would rise in price, but more of them would be made at home and there would be more industry and employment at home.

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